François Robin Fromager can tell you about the history of cheese, its taste, texture, and weight by just looking at a wedge. No wonder he’s got the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France at a ‘youngish’ age
When I sit down for a chat with cheesemonger François Robin Fromager the first thing I tell him is that his aromatic sensibilities and sensitivities remind me of an interaction that I had a couple of weeks ago with the French master perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. His childhood olfactory memories too had me charmed, though the notes were of a ‘different’ kind than those of François — more on that later.
We are at Hotel Catalpa, Annecy, and François is finally resting (read: sitting). We’re a group of ten cheese enthusiasts on Sopexa’s Tour de Fromage to experience the best of French cheese. And François has taken it upon himself to ensure that we first acquaint ourselves with our five senses. “For that is the only way to taste and appreciate cheese,” says one of the 22 cheesemongers, who earned the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) in 2011. He didn’t have it all planned. As a kid, he wanted to be a scientist or a modern jazz dancer. “I was good at school but lazy. Also, my parents knew that it was better for me to be something else than a farmer.” In between, he was a part of a rock band. It was only when he turned 35 that he decided to be a cheesemonger. François insists he is now old (44). We disagree on many counts. It’s day five of this week-long trip and we’re yet to see him ‘rest.’ As for his childhood memories, they’re aplenty.
François is the son of a goat farmer. And he begins by sharing two olfactory tales, asking me to pick a favourite. I can’t, for I am charmed by the honesty and humility of both — I did mention that, right?
“My father worked at a farm. On a few occasions, some ladies from the city would visit the farm and remark on how stinky the farm and goats were.” François didn’t agree. “For me, it was their city perfumes that smelt rotten! I preferred the smell of goats. Even today, when I visit a goat farm, I feel like I am home — it makes me a child again.” His other tale is as sincere, one that he shared at the last stage of MOF. “I am five and believe in Santa Claus. One day at a cafeteria, Santa Claus walks in, and we’re all dubious about his existence. On closer examination, I notice that he is wearing the same shoes as my father and has the same eyes too! To be certain, I go near him and smell him — he smells of goat — which, is the end of my belief in Santa!”
He shares, "My mother stopped breastfeeding when maybe I was four months old. I was fed goat’s milk from the farm. When I was two, I remember having the best morning meal ever-fresh goat cheese with apple compote!"
No wonder that when I ask him to name his three favourite kinds of cheese, he says, “Number one goat’s cheese of any type. Followed by Salers; the bitter, salty, and intense cheese made in the mountain; and Beaufort, the summer mountain cheese.”And this list, by the way, is ever-changing, except the top slot.
It goes without saying that he’s loved cheese all along, just that he wasn’t sure that he could be a cheesemonger — an individual who specialises in cheese and is your guide to buy the right cheese for you. “Cheese is not a subject that’s taught in class. So, as a kid, growing up in France, you can dream of becoming a pastry chef or a cheese maker (if is a family business), but you wouldn’t know that a cheesemonger is a profession too.” It took him a while to discover this. He wanted to pay for his education so he started serving tables. “At 19, I was totally on my own. I worked in the field of cultural studies, which was part of my 20 months of civil service.”
From the age of 25-25, he worked at a movie festival, as an assistant at a cultural venue, and played rock n’ roll in a band. “It was fun, but I knew I needed to change my life and find another job. The opportunity came to me to move from South West of France to Paris. I went to a cheesemonger school in Paris — studying during the first few days of the week and working from Wednesday-Sunday.”
He’d always loved food, hence it was a natural move to study cheese. During this time, two things happened. One, he got to run the cheese section at Fauchon’s flagship store in Paris. And two, he sat down for the qualifying round for MOF, which is held every four years.
“The qualifying rounds was a full day. I had to set a cheese buffet, cut different pieces of cheese corresponding to a weight (without weighing, of course), do a round of blind tasting, answer technical and theoretical questions, et al.” This was in 2011 and François thought he’d never make it to the next round of the title, which is organised by the French Ministry of Education.
“Months later, I received a mail that I had made it to final. I was still certain that I would not make it from here on. So I asked my wife to stay at home to save her from the disappointment. And when I made it, I realised I was alone, with no one to celebrate the win with,” he laughs, “To celebrate, we spent a week in Venice.” His wife works in organic agriculture and is a documentary filmmaker. They’ve been blessed with a daughter. “She is ten-months old. When she grows up, we’ll all go on vacations where we can explore and document cheese and food in general.” Meanwhile, they’re content eating homemade pasta prepared by François.
François had been a cheesemonger for only three years when he earned the MOF title. No wonder it still surprises him! As for me, I am not surprised. Show this man any cheese and he will tell you whatever you wish to know about it. For instance, after I’d tasted more than 20 different types of cheeses on the tour with him, he advised, “always start with the mildest cheese. Break it before you taste. Have a drink of water or a slice of neutral apple in between — to distinguish tastes.”
And smell? I asked. By now they all smelt so good but similar, I said meekly, “Can we not smell, say, coffee beans in between like when we try fragrances?” He answered the query and also summed up the whole experience in these beautiful words, “The smell of cheese doesn’t last as long as the aroma of perfume. It is long-lasting only in the mouth. Close your eyes, imagine — you will learn how to distinguish.”